A couple weeks ago, a local story about censorship went relatively unnoticed on the internet. Historian Seth Bramson was fired from the employ of the city of Miami Beach because of a book he was hired to write. It was a history of the town for the celebratory Miami Beach centennial. Apparently the complaint on Bramson’s work was two fold: he used “Spanish,” instead of “Hispanic,” and included scenes of Miami Beach’s corrupt officials from days past and the city didn’t like it. Several news outlets picked up the controversy, but it seemed the shrieky tools of social media didn’t care too much. Despite all the right ingredients—censorship of an intellectual, exposing corruption, and possible Orwellian control—nobody cared.
Now, using “Spanish,” instead of “Hispanic,” is a sensitive and erroneous language snafu that Bramson surely should have caught, but it’s an offensive copywriting issue that can be corrected with a word search and a couple hours work. It’s no real reason to scrap an entire book. The city didn’t want a chapter titled “For Twelve Years, Things Did Not Go Quite Right,” about corruption from city officials during 2000-2012 to see the light of day.
It’s important to see this as a transaction. When you take on a corporate client as a writer, you have to understand what they want and quite frankly, academic freedom just doesn’t exist when someone other than a university is paying you for your work. Maybe Bramson could have changed his book, but he chose not to. If he was writing a corporate history of Burger King and got fired for including something similar, it wouldn’t even be close to newsworthy. But Miami Beach, for all it’s branding, is not a corporation and history is messy business. They should leave in the juicy bits. Everyone loves the juicy bits. Censorship can sometimes be wrong and evil, but here it’s just kind of dumb.
It’s mostly funny to watch the city try and control the message. Miami Beach is a #brand, and perhaps one of the most well-branded cities in the world — palm trees, rap stars, skinny models and turn down for what. Tourism pays the bills around here and that’s what people want out of this overwrought spit of picturesque real estate. Miami Vice tells us that a historical seedy underbelly is part of that identity.
Miami Beach was created effectively from thin air. Before Carl Fisher, this place was nothing, uninhabitable. It was created, made, and as Mickey Wolfson once said in Miami Beach: Blueprint of an Eden, “if Miami Beach was built on anything at all, it was the bedrock of illusion.”
It’s worth mentioning that I am a Miami Beach resident and have been for nearly a decade, despite being raised in North Miami. This is the part of the city I like living in most. Miami Beach is glorious milieu of weirdos and tourists, and you can walk here (unlike the rest of the town) while soaking in all of the action. I genuinely feel the love of this centennial. I am proud of Miami Beach and the beautiful shit-show it has become, as well as the haven of old people, soldiers and drug runners it has been for the past 100 years.
Miami Beach, you can’t change what this place is. Controlling the narrative seems futile. I mean c’mon guys. They film TONS of porn here. The cars are outrageous. EVERYONE IS DRUNK. Know what you are and let it breathe.
For good measure, we dove into the Special Collections of University of Miami just to find a few seedy stories highlighting the sun and the shade of Miami Beach, so without further ado, here is a small list of unknown stories from the archive that may or may not have gotten censored by city officials:
When famed architect and designer of Lincoln Road, Morris Lapidus and his wife Beatrice arrived in Miami Beach it was during prohibition. From his autobiography, Too Much is Never Enough (1996). Lapidus wrote that Bea Lapidus needed her rum, and stashed a half dozen bottles in her girdle. When she got out of the cab, one fell out and smashed in front of the staff. She ran off inside, classily dropping two more bottles along the way.
The Erick Lyle Papers have a unique document titled “Palm Trees and Cruelty” described as the, “only surviving half page of the destroyed pages originally made for SCAM #3, sarcastic article about Miami’s dead tourist epidemic of 1995-1996.” Lyle’s work covers the 1990s to the present and describes a rich counter-culture scene rarely discussed. SCAM was a zine put out by Lyle that decided to artistically cover the murders of German tourists on their way to Miami Beach. Something the city would love to forget, much like the rampant crime (The crime rate is approximately two and a half times the national average.) that persists to this day.
Polly Redford, author of Billion Dollar Sandbar (1970), a crucial history of Miami Beach, has her papers housed at the University of Miami. She also had a son with a really unpleasant past. Recently, Adam Redford had an unpleasant brush with law due to his affinity for animal crush porn.
The Howard Davis Collection is an amazing array of pictures from Miami’s weird artistic party scene from the 1980s. The iconic September 1986 issue of Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine is included with an article about Davis’ art collective Artifacts. They ran a beat-the-landlord scam and rented out houses on the Venetian Causeway set up as de facto art galleries where painters like Purvis Young would show. The patrons got too drunk and the houses, including the mansion built by the Dole pineapple family in the 1920s, became increasingly dilapidated eyesores.
Miami Beach was initially the site of a failed coconut plantation in the late 19th century and legendary Miami pioneer, a man named Dick Carney, helped plant the fated crop, which was eventually eaten by rats. I can’t imagine the censors really getting uptight about this one, unless they somehow mistook his name for a circus worker’s genitalia. But still, a good fact to know.
Meyer Lansky donated a window to the Jewish Museum — the same Meyer Lansky who was the mob’s accountant. From Steve Hersh Research Services & Projects Assistant at Special Collections:
At the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, amongst the artifacts and exhibits documenting centuries of Jewish life in the state, sits a stained glass window that was always an attention grabber on the tours I led as a docent. The museum is housed in two former synagogues that were home to Beth Jacob, the original Jewish congregation in Miami Beach. A rather infamous member of Beth Jacob was Miami Beach resident Meyer Lansky, reputed gangster and accountant to the Mob. A stained glass window noting Lansky as a “generous contributor” sits on the south side of the sanctuary, right where my tours would usually end. Head-scratching would frequently ensue, with visitors trying to reconcile Meyer Lansky the gangster with Meyer Lansky the religious congregant. To me it was just one more example of the way in which Miami’s seedy underbelly is always exposed, for everyone to see.
Jackie Gleason, namesake for the theater on Miami Beach and the city’s most famous face of the silver screen, amassed a quite unbelievable library of around 1,700 books focusing on the supernatural and occult. It is housed at the University of Miami and is incredibly weird.
Many people know the story of Rosie, the famous elephant of Carl Fisher, which was purchased as an advertising gimmick to bring tourists to Miami Beach. A recent acquisition at the library is an inscribed copy to Fisher with a cute picture of an elephant. So, aww, it’s cute that Fisher loved elephants, but this important book, Hunting the elephant in Africa, and other recollections of thirteen years’ wanderings (1913), further shows he was also a friend of a racist ivory hunter named Charles H. Stigand. Also, Rosie shat all over a bank once.
God bless you, Miami Beach. You are weird and I love every inch of the place. Past, present, and here’s to a hopeful, party filled, and occasionally weird and gross next 100 years.
Nathaniel Sandler is the co-founder and director of the Bookleggers Mobile Library, serving Miami with free books on a monthly basis at literary events throughout the city. He writes for the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, University of Miami Special Collections, Vizcaya, the Miami Rail, and now, The New Tropic.
Special thanks to University of Miami Special Collections for help with this post.